Eleven months ago, local news outlets announced that the San Jose City Council had entered into exclusive negotiations with Google to build a mega campus in downtown. This was a surprise to many, especially since the process had little to no input from the larger public.
Throughout fall of last year, local organizations hosted town halls to gather input on how the proposed campus would affect different areas of San Jose. The testimonies ranged from excitement of what opportunities could come, to anger at the lack of community inclusion in the negotiating process and to fears that this campus would further displace them and their families amidst the housing crisis.
Concerned residents who attended several of those community town halls formed Serve the People San José in September, a group leading a campaign to halt the Google-San Jose negotiations. As immigrants, renters, youth, and queer and trans people, we felt that the process of truly determining what happens on our public land was slow and inefficient. To us, the negotiations seemed undemocratic because they failed to amplify the voices of those who would be most impacted: those who live paycheck to paycheck or who have no roof over their heads, not to mention other marginalized communities.
Our families and friends are already being pushed out of San Jose, as well as other Bay Area cities such as San Francisco, East Palo Alto, Mountain View, and Oakland. We do not want San Jose to continue heading in the direction of another gentrified ghost city. For decades, our San Jose has already been facing major displacement in seeing our loved ones move to Los Banos, Tracy and even Texas and Nevada. We see how all of these cities experience broken promises from community benefits agreements signed by companies like Facebook, Twitter, and Google itself.
Once an influx of new tech workers enter, we see how rent prices skyrocket and how richer, newer residents are favored over lower-income long-term residents. We have no other choice but to act and voice our demands in defense of our city.
We began meeting in the corridors of San Jose State’s cafeterias to assess how our different communities felt about the process. We feel that the Google campus was less of a solution, and more of a barrier to what our community needs, which is low-income and extremely low-income housing, fully-funded public schools, and access to quality public services. We have conducted extensive research into the company and have no faith that Google will conduct itself in our home with any legal or moral responsibility to address any of these community issues.
Instead of seeing Google as a way to pay for our public services, we instead see that our own city government and elected officials should be the figures fighting for our basic needs through policies, protections, and action, instead of bending at the knees of greed and profit. Beyond rigidly timed public comments at City Council meetings, we know our voice is not truly listened to.
In order to reclaim our own democratic power, we developed grassroots initiatives. We held what we call People’s City Councils where we had leaders from the native, LGBTQ, and working class community speak on the Google campus. We held educational discussions at local schools around gentrification and what youth wanted to see in the Diridon Station area beyond another tech campus.
Our community members clamored for community gardens, youth centers, senior and teacher housing, and jobs with livable wages. We put these needs into action by disrupting Mayor Sam Liccardo every three minutes during his state-of-the-city speech to showcase the real state of San Jose—a city in a county where a homeless person dies every three days on the streets.
The Falseness of SAAG
In January, the San Jose City Council unanimously approved the creation of the Station Area Advisory Group (SAAG) to provide input around the Diridon Station and the proposed Google campus. Members of the group include neighborhood associations, small businesses and larger corporations, and non-profits focused on displacement.
From the get-go, community groups such as PACT, Sacred Heart Community Service, and Silicon Valley Rising criticized early on the selection of the groups, noting that the groups chosen may have lobbied or partnered with Google. Google itself was also chosen—something we believe is a clear conflict of interest.
During this past Wednesday’s SAAG meeting, Google representatives were to present their campus plans. Serve the People San José members provided public comment, and protested during Google’s presentation for 45 minutes.
Like with any civil disobedience, there are many folks who are confused around why we did this, and why we had a seemingly “reactionary” response. But when looking at our local war on the poor, the protest centers around these two reasons: justice and liberation over equity, and a radical change from community input and representation to true community leadership and decision making.
Justice Over Equity
One of the tenets of SAAG is that the plans for Diridon Station will be equitable for everyone—where community residents can enjoy local parks, retail shops, and bike paths. They would like the public to believe that gentrification would be beneficial for every person in San Jose.
The issue with the equity argument is that it erases the historical and unjust context that is ever worsening. There are long-term residents living in their cars and underneath freeways because of the decisions City Council has made around renters protections over the last few decades. Section 8 housing is limited because of systemic racial and economic discrimination. The housing crisis is actually a longstanding war on our poor, and this war has included policy decisions that have neglected and blamed our friends and families for living on the streets.
In light of this reality, we disrupted the meeting because we wanted to center those who have been impacted by this war and who are consistently erased from corporate- and city-sponsored dialogue. We don’t disagree with developments for more parks and bike paths, but we cannot talk about urban decorations without addressing the very basic need of housing for our people, which SAAG has yet to truly center. Equity cannot happen without addressing that we are living in an area of corporate-city marriages that plow down community efforts to gain democratic power.
SAAG cannot prioritize these issues without the presence of people directly impacted by the violence of homelessness and poverty at the table. If SAAG does not restructure to include this truly valuable community insight from people who have been historically marginalized, it will continue to be an illegitimate group.
The SAAG body, as many of local organizations have stated, is a farce. Although we have three organizations in SAAG fighting against displacement, this representation is not enough. Although the Google policy director is from San Jose, that representation is not enough either. The disruption was a way for community members to actually have more than two minutes, to have more than a seat at a table, but to show that we, the renters and unhoused, should be in leadership of how we build San Jose.
There is a disconnect between us, as everyday residents, and our civil servants, in terms of what we would like to see built. Our elected officials have shared outrightly their pro-business stance in their council votes, which at many times, conflicts with our desires for more housing, education, and livable wages. In looking at the Sharks arena as an example, the area was a subject of eminent domain, like the proposed Google campus, where community members were bought out of their homes to build a better arena. Even though an arena can be beneficial to the city, families’ lives, memories, and meals are disposable to our city council and developers who only want to make a profit.
There is also a disconnect with us and our control over our land. Before this project, we barely knew that we had public land ready for development or that our city was capable of working to acquire private properties for redevelopment. The disruption was a way to bridge that disconnect, and that we, as a community, should be the ones initiating land projects ourselves.
Similarly, when it comes to affordable housing, community “input” has often been synonymous with hundreds of two-minute public comments stretching into hours and hours of testimony at City Council meetings, and the council voting away tenant rights. Most of the time, the call for more affordable housing or renters rights protections doesn’t really make a dent on City Council officials who are already financially endorsed by the California Apartment Association or big businesses like Google.
At SAAG meetings, this trend continues. Community input means having time for public comment at some point in the meeting. But the ones who truly get heard are those who have a seat at the table, and in SAAG, we not see the diverse community that represents our city and, more importantly, we do not have the poor and working class centered. Is public comment really listened to? Do our comments truly even make an impact on how elected officials vote and create policy?
When we protested the meeting last week, we chanted our demands for 45 minutes to the point where SAAG members had to leave the table. Metaphorically, we want this to happen. We want to develop a body that actually has our most disenfranchised community members not only providing input, but making real enforceable decisions in what this area should look like. If it is public land, then why is the public merely offering input? Our protest meant reclaiming our decision making power over our land.
Momentum for Change
After police escorted out our members, Google continued its presentation and shared their vision of creating an area of urban retail and nature paths. Although their plans sounded dreamy, there was, with disappointment, no mention of displacement or low income and extremely low-income housing. Even with 45 minutes of chanting “No to Displacement” and “No to Google,” once again, they did not listen. The dynamic at the meeting showed the already ongoing direction of the city: a city dictated and curated to and by the rich, while the working class voice is pushed away.
Serve the People San José believes that we can change this. This is our San Jose. We know that Google is only one player towards displacement—there is also Apple, Amazon, Adobe and many other corporations and developers playing a role. This is a movement for our community’s self determination, to decide our own future, and stopping Google can mean entering a path towards land trusts, more public or cooperative housing, and access to sustainable gardens and resources. We can move towards a direction that protects the vibrancy of our communities that already live here. We do not need a corporation to highlight the wealth of our own city. This is a vision we deserve.
In moving this movement forward, we are marching to Google in a historic two-day march from San Jose to the Googleplex in Mountain View to show that San Jose residents do not want a Google campus in our city. We invited families, elders, disabled folks and allies from other parts of the Bay to join us in the demonstration, which began Monday and continued this morning, which we hope will help us build community decision making power over our land.
Katherine Nasol is a member of Serve the People San José. Opinions expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect those of San Jose Inside. Want to submit an op-ed? Email pitches to [email protected].